In the United States Capitol, a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee has stood representing the state of Virginia, but that is going to change. In December of 2020, Virginia governor Ralph Northam announced that a statue of civil rights activist and Drexel alumna Barbara Rose Johns will replace the former statue.
Although she was born in 1935 in New York City, Johns grew up in Virginia and was inspired to be involved in civil rights by her uncle, Vernon Johns, a civil rights pioneer and pastor.
Her career began as a teenager — in 1951 at the age of 16 Johns led a walkout at her high school in response to inferior conditions at the all-Black school, whereas their white counterparts were not subjected to the same treatment. Her leadership resulted in the support of the NAACP lawyers who eventually filed a lawsuit that was reviewed in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case.
The walkout led by Johns has been considered the start of a movement to end desegregation within the United States. Due to the attention she received for her work, Johns was subject to threats from the Klu Klux Klan, which resulted in her parents sending her away for her safety to finish high school. After high school, Johns attended Drexel University, graduating with a degree in library science.
The decision to replace Robert E. Lee’s statue with one of Johns’ came after a commission was created to find the replacement statue. After the collection of nominations and a deliberation period, Johns was selected. As the Capitol prepares to welcome the statue, the commission will continue their work in selecting a sculptor to create the statue of Johns.
In a statement, Governor Northam praised the decision to place a statue of Johns in the Capitol. “I am proud that her statue will represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol,” Northam said. “Where her idealism, courage, and conviction will continue to inspire Virginians, and Americans, to confront inequities and fight for meaningful change now and for generations to come.”